Retirement Planning In The Time Of COVID-19

I’m taking a break from rounding in the ICU this afternoon while waiting for 3 of my patients’ COVID-19 test results to come back. And I was trying to think of anything good that has come from the financial melt-down that has occurred over the past month. There is at least one small opportunity that the sudden drop in value of the stock market presents, namely, the opportunity to convert your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA with less negative tax implications.

Physicians are generally not able to contribute directly to a Roth IRA because they have too high of income. However, physicians (or anyone) can contribute to a traditional IRA with after-tax dollars. In a previous post, I outlined why I believe that traditional IRAs are an unwise investment option for most physicians. However, many physicians (and other people) have traditional IRAs that they have accumulated when rolling over a pension plan into an IRA. This often happens when changing employment and leaving one employer’s pension plan to join another plan.

I have been a long-standing proponent of annually contributing to a traditional IRA and then shortly thereafter, moving the money in that traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, a process called a Roth conversion. This is also called the “backdoor Roth”. In the past, the only mechanism for contributing to a Roth IRA was by people who have annual incomes less than $124,000 ($196,000 if filing jointly in 2020) contributing directly to the Roth with pre-tax dollars. However, several years ago, a law governing Roth contributions expired, allowing anyone (regardless of income) to “convert” a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. This now allows a person making more than $124,000 to contribute to a traditional IRA with post-tax dollars then convert that traditional IRA into a Roth IRA.

The advantage of the Roth IRA is that it grows in value tax-free and then when you take the money out, you don’t have to pay any taxes on it. I believe that the Roth IRA is an important component of a diversified portfolio of retirement investments.

One consequence of converting a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA is that you have to pay regular income tax on increase in value of the traditional IRA at the time of conversion. So, if you originally contributed $2,000 to a traditional IRA and it increases in value to $3,000, then when you convert it to a Roth IRA, you have to pay regular income tax on the appreciation value of $1,000. Other than doing an annual “back door Roth” conversion, there are two times that it is smart to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA: (1) when your income tax rate is low and (2) when the stock market crashes.

As I have stated in previous posts, my philosophy to retirement planning is to be able to have enough retirement savings that when you retire, you can withdraw enough out of your retirement funds to equal your current income. If you are successful with that, then you are not going to be in a lower tax bracket when you retire so option (1) for traditional IRA to Roth IRA conversions will not be possible. The COVID-19 outbreak and its effect on the world’s stock markets makes option (2) now very appealing.

When we changed our physician practice corporation in the early 2000’s, I rolled my former corporation’s pension plan into a traditional IRA. In 2009, the stock market dropped precipitously and I used that as an opportunity to convert about half of my traditional IRA into a Roth, thus minimizing the amount of income tax that I had to pay at the time of conversion. Over the next several years, the stock market regained all of its losses and then continued to grow in value so when I retire and take money out of my Roth IRA, I won’t have to pay any taxes on all of that increase in IRA value.

Over the past month, the stock market has fallen by about a third of its value. Consequently, most people’s traditional IRAs have fallen to their lowest value in many years. As a physician, I know that epidemics eventually pass and COVID-19 will eventually go the way of all other previous human epidemics. When that happens, the economy will get back into gear and the stock market will rise again. Therefore, this may be one of the best times in years to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth since you will pay considerably less in income tax on the conversion now than you would pay on withdrawals from the IRA in retirement.

One small silver lining an a sky otherwise full of dark gray COVID-19 clouds

March 21, 2020


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